The Interview with Joan Retallack Page Two
by Anthony “Uplandpoet”Watkins
JR: I love that poem — “Coimbra Poem of Poetry & Violence: Grief’s Rubies.” I wrote it with Forrest Gander after we were both at an international gathering of poets hosted by the University of Coimbra, in Coimbra Portugal. The idea of collaborating occurred after our discovery that we were both writing in sync with the sounds of poems that were being read aloud in a dozen or so languages we didn’t understand. I was doing it in order to be maximally attentive to what I was hearing — to record what was coming to mind as I listened to beautiful sounding, but unintelligible language. In that way I really connected with it. It turned into an engaged, though unusual, form of understanding. Forrest was sitting behind me and noticed that what I was doing looked like what he was doing. So, we agreed on a very simple collaborative procedure via email. We exchanged what we had written in conversational pairs, one pair per page, alternating whose would come first. Basically A-B, B-A, A-B, etc. So much of what the Coimbra gathering was about — the positive energies of poetry, the horrors of increasing world violence — resonate for me in the gravitas and humor that came through in the collaboration.
I actually haven’t done many collaborations, but others I particularly enjoyed were with Lyn Hejinian, Jackson Mac Low, and Alison Knowles. Of course, interviews (like this one) or conversations are collaborations of another sort. I’ve enormously enjoyed written or recorded conversations with John Cage, Tina Darragh, Peter Inman, Jena Osman, and Rosmarie Waldrop.
AUP: I would ask you what your “agenda” is in writing poetry, but it seems you clearly are writing poetry to express not only the usefulness but the necessity of poetry. Could you elaborate or correct me on this point?
JR: You’re absolutely right and have put it well. Usefulness, necessity and, I’d add, pleasure, are what it’s all about.
AUP: What do you tell young poets? Or even those of us who are long past young, but still don’t quite grasp poetry in the way, and on the level, you do?
JR: Because I’ve always taught, I’ve had the chance to introduce people of different ages and educational experience to poetry and other kinds of texts that aren’t immediately intelligible or meaningful, may not make sense at all at first or second or even third glance. One of the best ways I’ve found to start (alone or with others) is to read poetry aloud, playfully in a variety of ways — even backwards, or turning it into a dialog, or singing it. I call that starting with “sound sense.” Is there a way to read this line or passage so that it begins to make more sense than it did lying silently on the page? I’ve seen amateur actors, with little formal education come to a better understanding of a Shakespearian play than students in a college seminar. It’s because the actors had to figure out how to speak the dense passages with odd vocabularies and syntax in a way that would make sense to the other actors as well as the audience. Reading scholarly interpretations wouldn’t have helped at all.
AUP: How do you see feminism, both in the world and in your poetry?
JR: Historical assumptions of male supremacy make femi-nism and LGBTQIA solidarity necessary. Just as white supre-macy makes Black Lives Matter and associated movements necessary. My feminism is expressed as belief in the dignity and strength of women (trans included) and through my longtime practice of “investigative poetics.” See the last poem accom-panying this interview: “The History of Being Sche, Keyword: Soft.” It’s part of a suite of poems called “The Misogyny Variations.”
AUP: Thank you, Joan.
AUP: I tend to make the false assumption that all humans are basically alike and thus all poets are basically alike and must then have traveled a similar path. My friend and teacher, Al Filreis, has helped me see that poets think in very different ways, not only different from non-poets, but different than other poets.
JR: Viva Al Filreis!
AUP: I know you are in some ways tied to both Gertrude Stein and John Cage, but who do you see yourself most connected with, and how?
JR: The work of both Gertrude Stein and John Cage has been, still is, very important to me. I first read Stein as a teenager in Charleston, SC, when/where I needed windows into other worlds, into differences of many kinds. Stein delightfully obliged. I’ve been particularly grateful for her sense that an important part of what you are doing when you are composing words (into any form) is making a contribution to the composition of the time in which you are living. I’m paraphrasing from her extraordinary essay, “Composition as Explanation.”
I met Cage when I was 24 in a circumstance where we had a series of conversations over several days. Like my (of course textual) encounter with Stein, meeting and later working on (and with) Cage was and continues to be revelatory, actually in some similar ways. Cage was deeply influenced by Stein, particularly in his sense of what it means to compose music or language — that you are creating space-time experiences that both reflect and become the value frameworks in which you choose to live. I’ve also been affected in everything I do by Cage’s rethinking of the role of chance in life and art, as well as by his redefinition of silence. Silence being not the absence of sound (physically impossible), but what we’re not noticing, or what we’re ignoring. The procedure for the poem, “Not a Cage,” came from my experience of Cage’s thought and work.
I feel particularly strong kinship with my contemporaries, and the many young poets, who are courageously experi-menting in their work with language. Courage is necessary because, although there are exceptions, genuine experimen-tation tends not to be the best route to a panoply of prizes and prestigious grants.
AUP: Do you ever think about the similarity or difference in thought and process between yourself and other poets?
JR: I notice both and am more interested in the differences than the similarities.
AUP: In “Not a Cage” I cannot find a “Foot 1957,” but I do find Edward Westermarck, the Finnish sociologist who published a book in 1906 that might be on point: The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. I never studied him, but I see small discussions here and there about him and his work. Is this a coincidence, or is he the Westermarck in your poem? (I assume that his name is Westermarck as I simply cannot find Wetermarck. Is the reference to something or someone else? Can you explain what is going on there?
JR: It is surely too much of a coincidence to not be Westermarck. Good sleuthing! There must have been a typo in the source text. Not that I would have checked it then but when I wrote “Not a Cage” there was no Googling around to search out and confirm sources. Now, given your research, what’s Chapter XIII about?
AUP: I listened to your readings on PennSound and found them to stretch my understanding of language, in a way not unlike the challenge Stein presents. I try to represent the reader who is not the advanced student of poetry and the complexity of what has gone before. Also, in the PennSound collection, you read from “Coimbra Poem of Poetry & Violence: Grief’s Rubies,” a collaboration poem written because you both were writing poems as you listened to the poems at a Portuguese conference. This brings me to my question: Do you often collaborate on a poem? I know songwriters do it, and in some minor sense, lyric writing and poetry writing are related, but to me, poetry seems so innate, so internal, a collaboration seems almost impossible. How did/do you manage to co-write a poem?